Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | March 17, 2015


A special post for a friend going through a tough time.

roughroadAs the deadline for my next article loomed closer, I drew a blank. I had no idea what to write about. Images of lonely writers with mental block assailed me. Typewriters sitting in garbage cans (for those of you who don’t know what I mean, you must be too young. Imagine the guy throwing his monitor out the window instead,) crumpled sheets of paper, depressing tales of writers who never made it.

“Please HaShem,” I thought, “Give me a sign.” Wait a minute, signs! Perfect, that’s what I’ll write about! You see, this issue will be out just before Rosh HaShana and this is the perfect time to talk about signs, omens, and symbolism.

Most every Jew knows that we dip apple in honey so that we should have a sweet new year; even the non-Jews know it, thanks to Sue Bee and her friends at the honey factory. But those of us who are more familiar with Jewish traditions know that this is just the tip of the iceberg [which, by the way, is a siman done by eating just the very smallest edge of your lettuce leaf, but I digress…]

On Rosh HaShana, we make all kinds of symbolic acts, usually involving food. That more than anything probably proves the authentic Jewish origin of this custom. The common symbols we eat are listed in the machzor and include the head of a lamb or fish so we should be, “the head and not the tail,” pomegranates, so we should be “as full of mitzvos as a pomegranate,” and carrots. Why carrots? Because in Yiddish the word for carrots is “merren” which can also mean “more.” We appreciate what we have, but we want “more” zechusim, “more” chesed, “more” of everything.

People have taken this to new levels. One prominent Rov was known to eat peas on Rosh HaShana to have “peace on earth.” You could eat lettuce, half a raisin and celery so HaShem might “Lettuce half a raisin celery” (Let us have a raise in salary) or put a cabbage in your briefcase to get “a head at the office.”

What we see is that even though these foods have no special significance other than their chance homophonic similarities to something, they are respected as “siman” food. Doesn’t seem too magical, does it? So how does it work?

The thing to understand is that “simanim,” the signs we assemble on Rosh HaShana don’t work by magic. One origin of this custom is the Gemara in Horayos 12a which says that one should be accustomed to view various items at the beginning of the year. That’s good news for those squeamish among us who can’t quite stomach the idea of eating something like a lamb’s head that can watch us as we do. We don’t need to eat it, just look at it. OK, we know where it comes from, but do we know how it works?

The gemara just before it says that if a person wants to see if he will live out the year he should light a candle in a wind-proof room during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva. If it does not go out, he knows he will live out the year. But what if it goes out? The Gemara doesn’t say. The Maharsha says, “If it goes out, it doesn’t mean anything.”

You see, simanim and signs can only be for good. If a person sees what he considers a “bad omen” and then something bad happens, it’s because in his fear and trepidation about the bad sign, he has somehow negatively affected his “mazel” and that’s what caused the trouble.

This knowledge is of great use! That means that if you see something as a good sign, your happiness improves your mazel, leading to good things too. I’m reminded of the story about a multi-millionaire who used to stop and pick up pennies on the street. Someone asked him why he needed the penny. Showing him the letters on the small coin, the rich man said, “You see what it says here? It says ‘In G-d We Trust.’ I know it isn’t me who made all this money, it was G-d’s benevolent hand. Whenever I see a penny, I just know He put it there to send me a message and remind me that He’s watching out for me. Isn’t that worth picking up?”

By taking even the smallest occurrence as a good sign, we can ensure that good things happen. And if we think something is a bad sign? Remember, “it doesn’t mean anything!”

So, now that I’ve created an article that’s “written well,” let me “seal” it by wishing all my loyal readers (and even those folks who wish I’d hang up my keyboard) a kesiva v’chasima tova and a sweet new year.


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